Skip to content

Forty Years At The Golden Heart

July 20, 2019
by the gentle author

Sandra Esqulant is celebrating 40 years as publican at The Golden Heart in Commercial St

Sandra Esqulant

“One day, about fifteen years ago, Sandra took a Hula Hoop and started Hula Hooping on the traffic island in the middle of Commercial St, and, without even thinking about it, I took a picture of her,” recalled Phil Maxwell in amusement, outlining the spontaneous origin of his photographic relationship with Sandra Esqulant, landlady of the Golden Heart since 1979. No-one has taken more photographs in Spitalfields than Phil and so it was inevitable that he would turn his camera upon Sandra, whose buoyant, playful nature is a gift to photography.

Once the pub for the Truman Brewery which closed more than thirty years ago, the Golden Heart was kept by Sandra and her husband Dennis together, until he died in 2009 leaving her to continue alone. Sandra has risen to the challenge heroically and, today in Spitalfields, she is among the few who connect us to that earlier time, when the life of the Brewery and the Fruit & Vegetable Market dominated, and the Golden Heart opened at dawn to serve the market porters. As a consequence, she is one who commands such affection among residents of the surrounding streets, that the question “How’s Sandra?” is exchanged as a kind of greeting, and the answer is taken as indicative of the state of things in general in this particular corner of London.

“At first, I knew her only to go in and have a pint, which I didn’t do that often. It was only in later years that I started drinking in the Golden Heart. I’d be completely broke and she’d always lend me twenty quid.” admitted Phil with an uncharacteristic blush,“After the Hula Hoop, she let me take pictures of her anytime. I was photographing her once when she was dancing in the bar and one of the customers told me to stop, and Sandra said, ‘Phil can take pictures of me whenever he pleases, he’s my photographer.'”

We were sitting in Phil’s studio in Greatorex St, in anticipation of the arrival of the great lady for a photo session, and just as Phil began glancing discreetly at his watch, Sandra made her entrance – worthy of a heroine in a musical comedy – bearing cakes and coffees and an abundance of goodwill, and exclaiming “Oh Phil, I love you!”

As we consumed our Danish pastries, Phil took the opportunity to focus his lens upon Sandra, while reminding her of the Hula Hoop incident, a cue for further hilarity. “As you know, I like making people happy and seeing everybody happy and laughing, even though I’ve been a bit down myself recently,” she confided to me, placing a hand upon my wrist. “I used to wind people up by saying I could do it for two days non-stop. My biggest thrill was doing it at two or three in the morning,” she continued, filling with glee at the mere thought of nocturnal Hula Hooping on a traffic island, “the police would come round and they’d say, ‘Don’t worry, that’s just Sandra.'”

“So when shall we do your portrait?” queried Phil, interposing the question as if it were something far off, but catching Sandra’s attention and causing her to sit up quickly, in the manner of a school girl when a teacher enters. Phil sat behind his camera on the tripod and Sandra sat facing him, expectant and eager. “I’ve put my lipstick on, do I look alright?” she asked, seeking approval. “You look good.” granted Phil gently, a little preoccupied now, peering through his lens at her.

I sat to one side, observing both photographer and subject, fascinated by Sandra’s impassive mode of readiness, with chin lifted just as she raises her countenance at the bar to greet a customer. Over all this time it has become the gaze that she raises to meet life.

Phil shifted his attention between the view through the lens and looking over the camera to meet Sandra’s eyes. In the silence of the intimate moment, emotions coursed through Sandra’s features like currents in water and as she looked towards the lens, it was if she were looking through it, deeper and deeper.

“She’s not a person who tries to hide anything when the camera is in front of her.” commented Phil afterwards, once Sandra had departed leaving a space in the room, a vacuum where her presence had been.“There’s never a moment when she isn’t the centre of attention, but she doesn’t demand your attention, you just can’t help looking at her.” he said.

Photographs copyright © Phil Maxwell

You can watch Sandra a film portrait of Sandra Esqulant by Hazuan Hashim & Phil Maxwell by clicking here.

More pictures by Phil Maxwell

Phil Maxwell’s Brick Lane

Beggars, Newspaper Sellers & Bubblegum Machines

Phil Maxwell, Photographer

The Cat Lady of Spitalfields

Remembering the Cat Lady of Spitalfields

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Robin permalink
    July 20, 2019

    Beautiful! Love the hula hoop, charm, and joi de vivre… thanks, Sandra and Phil!

  2. Stephanie permalink
    July 20, 2019

    Thank you Gentle Author for giving me the privilege in
    meeting Sandra via the film that I have just watched
    Although I will never meet her she is now my new

    Good thoughts I send
    Stephanie x

  3. Vince permalink
    July 20, 2019

    The very wonderful Sandra!

  4. Steve Buckley permalink
    July 20, 2019

    Best pub in London. Always visit when we’re in The East End. Was there for several days in late June, lovely weekend drinking Guinness and watching the cricket – a great pub. A ggg grandad had the preceding pub – Golden Harp – over the way on Lamb Court. Woild love to have a chat with Sandra!

  5. July 20, 2019

    What wonderful woman. Keep it up, Sandra.

  6. Jo Ann permalink
    July 20, 2019

    She radiates pure joy and Phil captured it beautifully

  7. July 22, 2019

    The forty years must seem like a dream, but my love the wonderful memories you create with your style, uniqueness, brains, and talent to everyone who crosses your path. They are memories that cross and intertwine with many people of this fair parish of Spitalfields. In the end, its what you remember of someone when they leave. The good times and laughter keep creating those memories. Apply that Tunisian moon lipstick for many years to come. You’re a true gem.
    Lots of Love always

  8. Daryl permalink
    July 22, 2019

    Extraordinary lady. Going to make a visit next time I`m in the area.

  9. Simon lee permalink
    July 24, 2019

    Had my first drink in there yesterday, surprising considering I have worked in the city for 35+years, and lived previously for 2 years in Commercial St and then Middlesex St. You can’t help but realise you are experiencing the history of the pub, being inside, but also witnessing a dying breed of pub in the area, where others have either been totally re-designed (The Gun) or unfortunately left to the developers (The Duke of Wellington). You just feel that the whole area is gradually being re-marketed and re-invented for the new ‘trendy’ set and you wonder where the future will be for this type of pub will be in the next 5-10 years.

  10. Alex holliday permalink
    November 28, 2023

    I’ll never forget Sandra – I used to date a local photographer who lived in a warehouse near the golden heart. She had a presence and I was fascinated by her story.
    Cheers Sandra x

  11. Alex holliday permalink
    November 28, 2023

    You always had the most beautiful flowers too ??

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS